The Year of Storage: What we need in 2024 to deliver a net zero electricity system

Written By: Chris Wickins
Posted 11 Jan 2024
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Barbie, artificial intelligence, ever-growing renown for Taylor Swift and likely to be the warmest year on record - 2023 was an important year in many ways.

Equally important, albeit less known, was the progress we’ve made in the transition to net zero. For the energy industry, 2023 was the year of electricity grids.

Awareness of the cables, towers (pylons) and overhead lines transporting power - the fact that there’s too few of them and that connecting new infrastructure can take close to a decade - surged among policymakers, journalists and the public.

While this hasn’t hit the charts as such, progress on policies to deliver the energy transition is certainly something to shout about.

What happened and why it matters

Both the energy regulator and system operator took action to speed up grid connections for renewable energy infrastructure developers like Field. To progress a healthy pipeline of projects stuck in the queue for a connection, particularly those which are shovel-ready, changes like this aim to help developers build and get their projects online.

Government policy began to explore how community engagement around new infrastructure could help speed up the planning process, particularly for the network infrastructure increase needed for net zero. This means projects should one day spend less time in the planning phase and, with the consent of communities hosting them, quickly move on to construction and operation.

2024 needs to be the year for moving further and faster to achieve net zero - tackling two big picture issues for deploying battery storage as the Government and the system operator map a spatial plan for the net zero energy system.

Battery storage needs to be front and centre for how we achieve energy security and climate targets.

Renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, receives plenty of attention in the debate around net zero technologies - and rightly so. However, as my Field colleagues, Amit Gudka and Luke Gibson have previously argued, storage must be a bigger part of the ‘toolbox’ of technologies we use to tackle the climate crisis, while bolstering the UK’s energy security.

While this year saw some progress to speed up deployment, historically the rollout of storage capacity has not been fast enough - in stark contrast to momentum for building other renewable infrastructure.

UK offshore wind capacity currently stands at nearly 14 GW (admittedly still short of its 30 GW by 2030 target). Battery storage remains at around 3 GW - with a further 20 GW in the queue for a connection by 2029.

Assuming all these projects receive a connection, this still leaves the UK short of its ambitions one year before we’re supposed to have 30 GW of storage technologies up and running.

To move further and faster, policy and regulation must accelerate the drive to build, connect and easily operate battery storage sites across the country.

To be clear, this isn’t a question of offering new, potentially market-distorting subsidies. It’s about making sure that the Government’s Battery Taskforce, for example, incorporates plans to accelerate the buildout of grid-scale storage as part of its work.

Forums like this would help grid-scale storage benefit from more representation in policymaking. By launching a call for evidence, for example, on changes needed to drive the UK battery storage industry’s growth, the Taskforce could draw on insight into R&D funding to advance battery cell efficiency even further or the recycling infrastructure needed for critical minerals.

To enable the full potential of storage + renewables, new products and services created by the system operator must offer batteries a bigger role in powering the grid.

Many of these already exist or are going to exist soon. The Balancing Mechanism allows batteries to participate in securing power supplies when the system operator expects a shortfall between supply and demand.

Similarly, System Restoration (aka Blackstart) is a service battery operators can bid into via a tender process, helping the grid restart supplies or manage frequency during a restart with cleaner technologies following network disruption.

The system operator works continuously with stakeholders to develop new products and services, crafting marketplaces for batteries to deliver vital services. This includes the Open Balancing Platform. Launched recently, it offers an easier way to turn lots of small but similar assets on at the same time, aiming to help batteries of all sizes be more visible to and at the disposal of the operator.

Where previously they might have called on a gas power plant to balance supply and demand to households and businesses at a moment’s notice, this should allow more batteries to perform the same role.

We need to invest in more technologies, platforms and services like this to enable the transition to a digitalised, decentralised energy system - one where there is more flexibility from renewables on the edges of the energy system, such as coastal areas with lots of offshore wind, to end users’ ‘flexible’ assets, such as electric vehicles, and grid-scale battery storage to operate a reliable, cleaner and more efficient grid.

I spoke to Energy Storage News about the good progress that has been made in this area. The conversation explored whether there is a missed opportunity in ‘grid booster’ projects in GB. These are projects where large batteries on both sides of a constraint allow an overhead line, for example between Scotland and England, to run at a higher rating before a fault by supplying the grid in equal and opposite directions.

Already deployed in Germany and other parts of Europe, grid booster services would enable National Grid’s control room to keep supplies secure if a fault, such as a lightning strike, occurs while the system operator sorts any ongoing issues. This could save consumers a lot, ensure security of supply and reduce our emissions. Grid boosters are complex, but they’re also the sort of innovation we should be deploying urgently to achieve a net zero electricity system by 2035.

Battery storage already plays a significant role in making the UK grid greener, flexible and more reliable - but there are applications across our electricity infrastructure where more batteries could accelerate the net zero transition.

Digitalising and decentralising the energy system, and delivering policy and regulatory changes at pace - these are ambitious steps forward as we move one year closer to our 2035 target.

With the right support, market signals and government policy to encourage investors, we could see 2024 make significant inroads in the roadmap for decarbonisation.